July 29, 2010

The Real lessons from the City of Bell Debacle

We Don't disagree with the points raised by the LA Times editorial of 7/23 below however there is a broader message: Never trust local politicians (or any for that matter) and always keep your ear to the ground. As Ronald Regan famously said" "Trust but verify" (see more quotes like this on our LAAG quote page) We completely applaud the more recent (7/29) LA times post below and for years have tried to get Sacramento to force local governments to open up their records. The biggest problem with local [city/county] government is that there really are no watchdogs or effective media scrutiny like there is at the state and federal level. No one thinks any fraud or corruption can happen at sleepy little cities yet this is the easiest place to pull it off as no one is even looking. Hell they don't even know where to look or if they did that the city would post anything on line answering their inquiries. Public records requests are useless as the law has no teeth and too many exceptions. All you get is a bureaucratic run around and no one bothers. The scary part is that no one looked at was how it was precisely that the LA Times was able to break this story. It was insider info apparently from the police. Great. Took a city feud to get the info out. See if you can find any mention of the Bell issues on the Lakewood website. Nope not one. See any salaries posted of ANY current city official or elected official? Nope. (a search for "salaries" or "pensions" on the Lakewood website did not pull up one document) Good luck on that. Can Lakewood become the next Bell? Sure. Why not? All cities have the potential to become Bell. Its just takes voters asleep at the switch and the right combination of insiders to get the guts to try to pull it off. Bell had that deadly combination. This website was created out of a frustration with the lack of transparency and action by local government. Nothing has changed. It wont until voters demand it change.

We applaud this latest column from Terry Francke (Voice of OC's open government consultant and general counsel for Californians Aware) as it once again just echoes LAAG's foregoing comments and emphasizes the problems with the current system (and weaknesses in the Brown Act) that allows any city to become Bell with the right [wrong] people in charge.

This ethics outline might be a good thing for the city council to post up in council chambers just to make sure they don't "forget" what they are supposed to do. And LAAG reminds "public servants" all the time, its not that anything "unethical" is actually going on, its that secrecy gives rise to "an appearance of impropriety". Taxpayers have a right to be suspicious, especially now with bell and all the other public pension debacles (back room shady deals) coming to light.

Schwarzenegger: City salaries should be placed online to avoid another Bell scandal
July 29, 2010 | 11:29 am

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday that if local governments have “nothing to hide” then they should post the salaries of top officials online, citing the growing scandal in Bell as an example of the need for disclosure.

City managers from across California are gathering in Sacramento today to discuss damage control.

The Legislature is also considering several responses to the high salaries in Bell, up to nearly $800,000 for former City Manager Robert Rizzo.

“The people should start asking themselves what are their city officials, what are their county officials getting paid,” Schwarzenegger told a group of business leaders at round-table discussion in San Diego.

Schwarzenegger said outrage over the scandal in Bell has the public calling cities and counties demanding to know what officials are being paid.

But local governments, he said, should go one step further and “put your information on a website so people don’t even have to call.”

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento

The lessons of Bell
There's a lesson for all citizens in how the outrageous salaries for Bell city officials came about.

4:06 PM PDT, July 23, 2010

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo has announced his resignation from his $787,637 a year job, as have police Chief Randy Adams ($457,000) and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia ($376,288), and we wish all three a not-so-fond farewell. Even if they performed their work brilliantly, and even if they believed in their hearts that no one earning less could properly serve their problem-wracked city, their pay was shocking, and so utterly out of step with their counterparts in neighboring municipalities and their own struggling residents as to be inherently exploitive.

The public became aware of the disproportionate salaries earlier this month in reports by Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives. Now Bell residents are angry and want to know why most members of their part-time City Council, which approved the contracts for the three, get an outrageous $100,000 a year when nearby council members get 10% of that, or even less. Prosecutors already are delving into that question, and they will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.

It would be comforting to be able to conclude that the problems in Bell — or in nearby cities such as Maywood, South Gate, Lynwood, Vernon and Compton, which have all been plagued by exploitation, mismanagement and corruption — originated with a handful of municipal officials who forgot their moral and fiduciary duties to the people they were supposed to serve. Or, perhaps, that the people of those cities brought these problems on themselves by electing such leaders, or by staying away from the polls and allowing themselves to be suckered.

Although there's certainly some truth to both of those explanations, the full reality is far more complex and troubling. Bell and its neighboring communities were built on factory industries and on waves of immigrants from the American Midwest who built their cities' civic institutions. They stayed, and many of their children stayed, but their grandchildren left when the factories closed. Their places are being taken by new waves of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who are still in the process of rebuilding community and civic institutions — but without the wealth that industry once pumped into middle-class pockets and city treasuries. Unlike the earlier waves of immigrants, many of the newest generation lack U.S. citizenship and can't vote. Those who came here illegally live and work in fear of the law and tend to keep their heads low rather than fight exploitation at the hands of those who win power.

But it's not even that simple. In 2005, soon after the governor signed a bill to cap salaries of city council members in general law cities such as Bell, public officials there called a special election to ask voters to make Bell a charter city. Only 336 voters said "yes," but it was enough. Ballot measures, drafted for purposes not immediately clear in their wording, are unfortunately not phenomena limited to small cities. That's a lesson, in this election year, for every California voter.

Lakewood Accountability Action Group™ LAAG | www.LAAG.us | Lakewood, CA A California Non Profit Association | Demanding action and accountability from local government™ click here to receive LAAG posts by email

No comments: